Lessons from Captured Tracks at SXSW

On and off Sixth Street
By LIZ PELLY  |  March 21, 2012

BLOUSE at Saturday night's Captured Tracks SXSW showcase in Austin. 
For those going to SXSW to discover young artists at the beginnings of their careers, the epicenter of the megafest has moved. The official SXSW events continue to center around Austin's Sixth Street but are increasingly filled with bands that most indie-rock enthusiasts have known about for years. To hear artists who are unsigned and underground, you have to walk 15 minutes away from SXSW proper to East Austin, which has evolved from a few years ago — when it hosted a handful of DIY porch and parking-lot shows — to a serious destination for music fiends.

The shifting dynamic of SXSW's official music showcases into less-newsworthy territory has come via SXSW's increased reliance on indie-labels as curators (or indie-labels as safety-nets), as well as an increase of showcases presented by PR companies, magazines, and blogs — places people already go to and artists people already know about. This has led to an official SXSW festival filled with already-signed, previously-covered acts.

Such a dynamic parallels an over-arching frustration in the music world that the founder of Brooklyn's Captured Tracks Records, Mike Sniper (a/k/a experimental post-punk act Blank Dogs), expressed on his blog in January: "It's obvious to me that when you've grown to that size as a label and there's a large staff to pay . . . you're not going to be able to take as many chances as when you were smaller."

The same sentiment can be applied to SXSW, which, some would argue, is growing too large for its own good. Luckily, though, on Saturday night, one of South By's safety-net label-curators was Captured Tracks, launched in 2008. Amid an underwhelming selection of official showcases at SXSW this year, the Captured Tracks show — the label's first official SXSW event — was exceptional.

At the Parish, a 450-capacity venue on Sixth Street, the showcase began with the Jameses, a Floridian rock trio with only a few self-recorded singles to their name. Following was dreamy guitar-centric psych-rock from Dive, Beach Fossils guitarist Zachary Cole Smith's new band.

Blouse, a trio from Portland, Oregon, played dark mid-tempo new wave with lush vox by singer Charlie Hilton and bass by Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Blouse naturally segued into a set by another '80s-inspired Portland band, Soft Metals, who played synth-heavy goth-pop. Both released debut LPs on Captured Tracks last year.

As did Widowspeak, who played next. The Brooklyn trio unveiled two new tracks off a forthcoming LP, both with their same moody dream-pop, one with punchier drums than usual, and a little guitar soloing. Second-to-last was the wide-eyed synth-pop of Craft Spells, in their ninth SXSW show this year.

As Beach Fossils headlined, it was nearing 2 am. Kids were stage-diving and flailing into each other. I remembered the first time I saw this band play, at a March 2010 Allston basement show, on a line-up with Cloud Nothings (before their 2010 debut LP with Carpark Records) and Quilt (before their 2011 debut LP with Mexican Summer). Flash-forward two years, and those bands were all hyper-anticipated acts at SXSW 2012 — likely because of SXSW's reliance on the recommendation of those bands' labels.

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